Judge Clark, R.I.P.

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

“Countering atheistic communism and one day having some land of his own were foremost among Bill’s dreams,” Patricia Clark Doerner writes in the introduction to The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand, a book she and Paul Kengor wrote about her cousin.

We can be grateful for both; God’s green earth can be an opportunity for contemplation, where wisdom is tilled. 

Clark was the good friend of Ronald Reagan, his close adviser as chief of staff in California and National Security Advisor in the White House to Ronald Reagan.

Edmund Morris said he was the “most important and influential person in the first administration” and Time said he was “the most powerful man in the White House.

In our 50th anniversary issue in 2005, National Review referred to him as an “Unsung Conservative”:

One of Ronald Reagan’s most loyal and important advisers, Judge Clark took on Rose Bird when they were both members of the California supreme court; played a key role in reviving Reagan’s 1980 GOP primary campaign; and served as national security adviser and interior secretary in Washington (replacing problematic appointees on both occasions). He is the most significant Reagan ally not to have written a memoir. “He did more for Reagan and the conservative cause while calling less attention to himself that anyone else I know,” says Reagan biographer Lou Cannon.

Michael Ledeen writes of Clark:

He was a real friend to Reagan and a great treasure to the nation.

I think the essence of the man was manifest fairly early on.  He was deputy secretary of state to Haig, who faced a nasty decision[]:  Israel had asked for the extradition of a Palestinian killer who was in an American jail.  The case was very contentious, and it was clear that if we agreed to the Israeli request, there was a real chance of attempts at revenge.  Haig asked Clark, who was, after all, a magistrate, to evaluate the merits of the case.

Clark waited until Haig was out of the country, which made the judge “acting secretary of state.”  And then he quietly ruled that the terrorist should be extradited.  That meant he assumed full responsibility.  Anyone wanting to avenge the decision would have to target him, Judge Clark.

That was a real profile in courage, which was rarely noted either then or afterwards.  For me it defined Judge Clark.  A rare man, a brave and gentleman, a hero.  That he was so ferociously challenged by some of the others is a reminder of the pettiness that is so common in political life, and of the jealousy that true greatness so often provokes.

In a review of his biography (which he eventually relunctantly gave his blessing to having written), Steven Hayward writes:

Clark was a true Cincinnatus, entering public service reluctantly and without personal ambition, and longing always to return to the plough. As they did Reagan, the media and his opponents consistently underestimated and ridiculed him, though he was supremely able. In some respects Clark could be considered Ronald Reagan without the Hollywood personality, and indeed the judge stands out as the one person with whom the president was personally close—the exception to Reagan’s well-known personal distance. (Clark is the person who originated the famous slogan, “let Reagan be Reagan.”)

With access to Clark’s private papers and other previously restricted sources, Kengor and Doerner detail for the first time many of Clark’s exploits, especially his crucial role as national security advisor in 1982 and 1983, when Reagan’s Soviet strategy took definite shape. His role in the president’s March 1983 speech announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative was decisive. Virtually everyone in the upper reaches of the administration was against the speech, except for Clark. It is hard to imagine Reagan going through with it without the judge’s back-up. Clark was the best of Reagan’s six national security advisors—the authors argue he was one of the best for any president ever—and when he stepped down it was mostly because he thought the tensions between him and the State Department were hurting his boss. Few public servants are so self-effacing.

Edmund Morris called Clark, a Catholic who considered the priesthood, “the only person in the entire two terms who had any kind of spiritual intimacy with the President.”

“I never met anybody who didn’t like him personally, even if they disliked him ideologically or politically,” Kengor has said.

“God gave Parkinson’s to such saints as John Paul II and my father, and now he has gotten around to sinners, such as myself,” Clark reflected on his final battle.

He died Saturday morning at his family ranch in California, surrounded by family.

In his obituary, the family reflects:

Bill possessed a quiet but passionate love of both country and the philosophical underpinnings of our nation. He was dedicated to the rights of the individual, from the unborn to the incarcerated, to the sick and the dying, to the under-represented. This love and dedication guided his many years in government, compelling him to serve his country.

Bill’s greatest solace in life was his faith in God, his wife Joan, his children, grandchildren, great-grandson, and the family ranch in Shandon. Whether he was working in Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington, D.C., he always returned home to the ranch where he was happiest, content, and rested. Nothing brought more satisfaction to him than working on the ranch, developing his springs, growing his olive trees, driving his horses, flying his l-19 ‘Bird Dog.’”

May eternal rest be his and his, by all counts, rightly ordered life be an inspiration.

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